contribute to Arctic Projects
by Glenn Williams
(Article on Chinook Plus II used in National Geographic
Television special, based on the article the "Ice Edge").
To my left is a solid white shelf of sea ice, to my right is
the dark green waters of Lancaster Sound. As far as I can see these are glistening white
backs of Beluga Whales mixed with the mottled black and white backs of tusked Narwhals as
they surface briefly to breathe in the cold dark water. This is the floe-edge, where
the open water meets the land fast ice. For the past two months these small arctic whales
have been moving back and forth along this barrier of sea ice. The whales are waiting for
the ice to break up so they can reach new feeding areas that have been protected with a
cover of ice since last fall. The ice surface is full of Polar Bear tracks as they lumber
along the edge looking for the opportunity to catch an unsuspecting meal.
I am flying the "Edge" at 100 feet in an ultralight
that I have built. I live in the small Inuit community of Arctic Bay on the north end of
Baffin Island in the Northwest Territories. I've worked for the last ten years as a
Renewable Resource Officer for the Northwest Territories Government.
team sets up shop in the cracks amongst the ice floes.
The Lancaster Sound region of the Canadian
High Arctic has been identified as one of the richest marine environments in the
circumpolar part of the world. It is this rich environment that has enabled the Inuit (the
first people) to live and thrive here. The abundance of wildlife has attracted a
second and third wave of people to explore the riches of the area. The latest wave has
been wildlife photographers and natural history film makers. We have worked with film
crews from Japan, Britain, Italy, France, Spain, and the USA. With each group trying to
capture images that have not been seen or filmed before, spawns a willingness to try new
National Geographic Magazine published an article in July
1999 about the "Ice Edge". Shortly after the article came out, National
Geographic Television proposed to do a one hour special based on the magazine article.
During the brain-storming part of the production it was conceived that a fully-equipped
ultralight aircraft could be used as a tool in the making of this film. Gestation of the
project took several years but on December 22, 1993, a Chinook 2 was delivered to my
workshop in six crates.
For the next four months every evening and weekend was spent
putting together a dream. As with all labors of love, I have no idea of the number of
hours that were spent in assembling the machine. I won't include the time spent sitting in
the seat of a partially assembled fuselage in the darkness of winter imagining what it
would be like to fly over whales and Polar Bears in the spring when the sun never sets.
When the sun returned in February from its holiday in the
south, I only had two months left to finish the plane before the weather warmed up to
minus 20 C and I could go flying. By the end of April the test flights were finished and I
was becoming more familiar with this very forgiving aircraft. I was flying the Chinook II
on straight skills and it made snowmobiling seem torturous and slow. After several
hours of touch and goes off the ice in and around the bay it was time for some
cross/country flights. I have traveled all of this area by boat, dogteam, helicopter and
snowmobile but it took some time and planning to pick what gear I would take with me on
this first flight. After the snowknife and rifle came the HF radio, tent, tools, stove,
food and ten gallons of extra fuel. The day was clear, minus 15 C and the wind was
calm when I left, I logged a total of five hours that day and was gone a total of 10
hours. This trip would have taken me tow days with a boat or snowmachine (five days with
dogteam) and I still saw seven Polar Bears, 20 - 25 Caribou and 15 to 20 Belugas. The
potential for this piece of equipment was very quickly becoming apparent.
The plan was to use the Chinook II (C-FRQX) in June and July
to scout for situations, land and film the action, as well as to shoot aerials. All that
was left to do now was to design, construct and mount a cameral bracket that could be used
to take the aerial pictures. I also took the skis off and mounted a set of Full Lotus
floats. It was incredible to fly with the Full Lotus and there was no water to be seen
yet. The snow had not begun to melt yet in May but in a short few weeks there would be
water on top of the ice from the melting snow. Then, in July, the sea ice would begin to
break up and we would be landing in the cracks amongst the ice floes. I flew C-FRQX
for the next two months and logged over a hundred hours. The contribution that was made to
the film by this aircraft was beyond everyone's expectations. The ability to get up in the
air and look down on the marine mammals gave a perspective that we didn't have before. To
scout for a concentration of animals and then fly around them without disturbing their
behavior was truly something special. My observations of whales nursing, feeding,
sleeping, fighting, breeding and doing things unknown to man will be with me forever.
The performance of the Chinook II with the 582 Rotax engine
was beyond belief. I have owned three other aircraft but nothing I have flown has the STOL
capabilities of this advanced ultralight. The safety factor of the inflatable floats, with
the skookum airframe and dependable engine made the choice of this ultralight for this
application the right one.
This is not the end of the story. During the flights last
spring, black and white photos were taken of the Narwhals. These photos showed that
individual Narwhals can be identified by the markings on their backs. This type of study
is non-intrusive science as the whales aren't being photographed on the surface. We are
also planning a photo identification study of Narwhals to begin next spring.
To fly an ultralight that I enjoy this much in an area that
has so much beautiful scenery and wildlife is wonderful in itself; the bonus is that we
can also make a contribution to science. Next spring I will be back out flying at the ice
edge. This time we will be collecting important data that will be used to ensure that the
riches of this area are preserved and will continue to proper.
Ultralights have progressed, from delta wings with an engine
to the Chinook II on Full Lotus floats. The applications for ultralights have advanced
from limited recreational vehicles to adaptable aircraft that have only begun to have
their potential realized.
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